Written by Roger Cohen
As if to demonstrate that old alliances prove their worth in times of war, President Emmanuel Macron of France will be feted this week in Washington on the first state visit by a foreign leader since President Joe Biden took office.
The 21-gun salute and elaborate reception that will be accorded to Macron, starting Wednesday, reflect the resilience of the old but sometimes fractious relationship between France and the United States. They also indicate the renewed centrality of Europe to U.S. interests since the invasion of Ukraine by President Vladimir Putin of Russia nine months ago.
A world now living with Putin’s nuclear blackmail is a changed world, where the ideals of liberty, democracy and universal human rights, central to both American and French identity, are directly threatened.
“The state visit is symbolically significant as the return of the trans-Atlantic relationship to the center of American strategy in the world, and it’s notable that the country getting the first nod is France, not Germany or Britain,” said Charles Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University.
Macron’s restlessness, as he seeks some new “security architecture” for Europe and greater “strategic autonomy” for the continent rather than continued dependence on the United States for defense, has at times been an irritant to the Biden administration. But at a moment when the United States needs a strong Europe, it has no more forceful interlocutor than the French president.
Britain marginalized itself through Brexit, for which it has paid a heavy price, and Rishi Sunak, its prime minister, took office only last month. Olaf Scholz, the cautious German chancellor with whom Macron has an uneasy relationship, has not yet developed anything resembling the broad European authority of his predecessor, Angela Merkel.
The war in Ukraine will be at the heart of talks between Biden and Macron, with subtle differences certain to surface, both in how to end the fighting and how to share the burden of the conflict’s harsh impact on Western economies.
“We have a demanding political dialogue in the sense that we are allies who are not aligned, if I may put it that way,” said a senior adviser to Macron, who declined to be named in line with French diplomatic practice.
Macron, while emphasizing that Ukraine recover its full sovereignty and accusing Moscow of an “imperial” invasion, has repeatedly insisted that the war must end at the negotiating table, not on the battlefield. The French president recently said that he would soon talk again with Putin, a conversation he has maintained throughout the war.
Biden has been more emphatic on the need for Ukraine to win the war, insisting that only the Ukrainians can decide when they should stop fighting, although in recent weeks, as winter approaches, the idea of negotiation has gained some ground.
Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested this month that a “dialogue box” may have opened with the Russian withdrawal from the southern city of Kherson. But senior officials close to Biden have made clear they do not think the moment is ripe.
In practice, with Ukraine ascendant on the battlefield and determined to keep recapturing Russian-occupied land, no avenue for talks seems to exist for the moment. The “good cop, bad cop” routine, combining Macron’s outreach to Moscow with Biden’s resolve that Putin be denied victory, appears likely to endure, bolstered by a shared determination to avoid escalation.
In the week leading up to Macron’s visit, French ministers and officials have expressed growing exasperation with what they see as unfair economic competition from the United States.
It is only 14 months since France briefly recalled its ambassador to Washington in fury at a secretive deal reached by Biden to help Australia deploy nuclear-powered submarines. The agreement, which also involved Britain, scuttled an earlier French contract to provide conventional submarines.
Intense diplomacy laid the dispute to rest as Biden called U.S. actions “clumsy.” But other economic differences have since emerged. Europe has none of America’s self-sufficiency in energy and is bearing the brunt of the soaring prices the war has caused, as it scrambles to find new sources of oil and gas.
In particular, France has taken aim at aspects of the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, including massive subsidies to American green industries, which France believes could lead European companies to relocate to the United States.
“We want a loyal and strategic form of competition,” the adviser to Macron said. The buzzword of French officials is “synchronization” of the economic response to the war.
“China favors its own production, America privileges its own production,” Bruno Le Maire, France’s economy minister, told France 3 television on Sunday. “It’s perhaps time that Europe favor its own production.” Macron’s government is determined to push a “Buy Europe” campaign.
The Biden administration contends that its legislation will expand the pie for clean energy investments, not split it up in ways damaging to Europe. It also expects that even with incentives for domestic manufacturing, the U.S. economy will continue to rely on imports of renewable energy technologies.
A task force chaired by senior officials from the White House and the European Commission has been created to engage with Europe on its concerns about American subsidies — something French officials have not alluded to over the past week.
Biden, who will soon face a Republican-controlled House, seems unlikely to budge on one of his signature achievements.
This will be the second state visit by Macron, 44, after former President Donald Trump invited him in 2018. Then he was a fresh face, a young man still hoping in vain to charm Trump and to sway him toward staying in the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accords.
Today, the sheen is off and Macron is struggling to give direction to his second term. Macron still tends to get ahead of himself sometimes, and nations on the fringe of Russia, including Poland and the Baltic States, which knew Soviet totalitarian rule, do not share his belief that Putin’s Russia can somehow be integrated one day into a new European security structure.
“With a surer grip on a highly differentiated Europe, Macron would gain a lot more traction,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “He too often veers toward the philosophical in a way that is politically tone deaf.”
But as the leader who twice won elections keeping the extreme right from power, and the boldest innovator in Europe, Macron is essential to Biden’s core global objective: that democracies prevail over autocracies, not least Russia and China.